Connecticut will adopt a phased-in approach to reopening state colleges and universities, officials said Wednesday. The plan could mean that research programs resume as early as May 20, but it remains unclear whether campuses will reopen fully to students this fall.
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“The plan is to move forward and try to conduct as much instruction in person as possible,” said Mark Ojakian, president of the state colleges and universities system.
But Ojakian said officials are looking at a variety of contingency plans, including online learning programs for faculty and students who may not be able to return to campus due to a second wave of COVID-19 cases, travel restrictions or preexisting health issues.
“We’re looking at all the options to make it as easy for students as possible,” Ojakian said.
UConn President Thomas Katsouleas said that, as the school plans for a widespread return to in-person learning in September, he still anticipates a “mix of in-person and online options,” especially for international students.
“That will accommodate the health concerns for the faculty as well,” Katsouleas said.
Over the coming months, state officials said they envision rolling out a tiered plan for state colleges and universities.
The first stage of reopenings would coincide with Gov. Ned Lamont’s reopening date for some businesses: On May 20, administrative functions and research programs could resume.
From there, officials said, nonresidential workforce and degree completion programs would start back up in early summer, with an emphasis on fulfilling lab, studio, clinical or shop requirements for community college students getting degrees this spring.
In mid-July, some schools could resume graduate programs if they choose, officials said.
State officials are targeting Sept. 1 as the date when undergraduate residential programs and boarding schools could resume, but they cautioned that all the reopening targets assume an improvement in public health conditions and a ramp-up in COVID-19 testing.
Rick Levin, a co-chair on the education committee of Lamont’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group, said a lot depends on prevailing health conditions in the fall.
He said a rise in hospitalizations or a second wave of COVID-19 could quickly scuttle plans for any widespread reopening of campuses.
“Schools need to be flexible. They need to be ready to open, but they also need to be ready to move online if absolutely necessary,” Levin said.
Meanwhile, statewide hospitalization numbers trended back down Wednesday, dropping by 55 people. The total number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is 1,445, and 2,718 people have died due to complications from the virus.
Secretary Of The State’s Guidance On Absentee Ballot Voting Casts Wide Net
As federal and state officials urge residents to stay home in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the question of who can legally cast an absentee ballot in the state’s upcoming elections has voting officials combing through state statutes.
On Wednesday, the state’s chief election officer issued her interpretation of one law that allows people with certain illnesses to vote by absentee ballot. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said that she believes there is flexibility in the law’s language but that the legislature could “fix this permanently” when it goes into session this summer.
Connecticut has strict requirements about who can cast an absentee ballot. State law allows absentee voting for active members of the military, people who will be out of town or can’t vote on Election Day because of religious reasons, certain members of the disabled community and some people who are ill.
Earlier this week, Merrill said her office would be mailing absentee ballot applications to every voter in the state. And today, she issued an opinion to local election officials, which said the current public health and civil preparedness emergencies carve out some leeway under that final absentee ballot qualifier: people who are ill.
“It is clear that this … statutory section … does not limit the term illness to an individual who has limited mobile function or is hospitalized or confined to a bed,” Merrill wrote. “In fact, the Centers for Disease Control have identified numerous preexisting illnesses that put certain individuals at increased risk when exposed to the COVID-19 virus.”
Merrill said those illnesses include people of all ages with underlying medical conditions; those with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma; people with heart conditions; anyone who is immunocompromised through a variety of factors, including everything from cancer treatment to smoking; and those with “severe obesity.”
Merrill said the CDC at-risk guidance also extends to people with diabetes, those with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis, people with liver disease and pregnant women.
Based on that CDC guidance, Merrill said, “any registered voter who has a preexisting illness can vote by absentee ballot because that voter’s illness would prevent them from appearing at their designed polling place safely.”
People in contact with someone infected with COVID-19 would also qualify to vote via absentee ballot, Merrill said, “such as health care workers, first responders, individuals who are caring for someone at increased risk, as well as those that feel ill or think they are ill because of the possibility of contact with the COVID-19 virus.”
“Connecticut has the most restrictive absentee ballot laws in the country, and the coronavirus has exposed how that restrictiveness can threaten our democracy,” Merrill said in a statement. “The legislature can and should fix this permanently when they come into session in the summer by removing the most restrictive language from the statute.”
During his afternoon briefing, Lamont said he anticipates issuing an “executive order that makes it easier to vote for the primary in August.”
“We are going to have the legislature come back into session, probably in June,” Lamont said. “I’ll put front and center that we’re going to have to solve the opportunity for people to vote remotely in November, as well -- at least those folks of a certain age that should not be going out to the voting booth.”
Connecticut’s primary is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 11.
New Quinnipiac Poll Finds Majority Of Conn. Residents Favor Slow Reopening
Connecticut residents are feeling personal economic pain, but they’re willing to put public health before economic recovery, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll.
“Probably the biggest takeaway for me is that, although Connecticut voters are feeling the financial strain from the coronavirus crisis, a majority of Connecticut residents don’t think the state should reopen anytime soon,” said Doug Schwartz, director of the Quinnipiac poll.
Schwartz said 1 in 5 or fewer would be comfortable getting on a plane, going to a sporting event or using public transportation.
And 71% of those surveyed think the priority should be slowing the spread of the virus itself -- even if that means hurting the economy.
Two-thirds say the restrictions in the state are about right, 20% say they don’t go far enough and 15% say the restrictions go too far.
“Only 27% said they’d be comfortable going to a restaurant or bar. So even if the economy opens up in a few weeks, it doesn’t look like Connecticut residents want to actually, you know, go out anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, state residents approve of the governor and his handling of the virus. According to the poll, Lamont’s overall approval rating is 65%; 78% approve of his work on the virus response.
Expect ‘Red Button’ On State Unemployment Website Soon, State Says
Self-employed individuals in Connecticut have been wondering why it’s taking so long for a red button to pop up on the state’s Department of Labor website.
Clicking that red button is one step in a convoluted federally mandated process self-employed workers need to follow if they want to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) under the federal CARES Act.
The only problem is the button still isn’t up.
Lamont’s chief operating officer, Josh Geballe, said Wednesday that the state was tasked with building this system from scratch and that kinks in the new system hadn’t been worked out.
“It has to be tested before it’s deployed, and in the final testing there was a bug that was encountered, so they were fixing that,” Geballe said. “We hope to have that fixed and ready to be launched very, very soon.”
Some 38,000 self-employed citizens have already executed a first critical step -- applying to the state’s filing system, according to state labor department officials.
The federal government requires people to apply for, and be denied, state benefits before they can access PUA assistance.
PUA can offer up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to independent contractors and gig workers who weren’t eligible for traditional state assistance. The amount of benefits paid out will vary by state.
The state says over 477,000 unemployment applications have been filed since March 13 -- a number the labor department said represents more than what it would typically get in a three-year period.
Federal DOJ Joins Fight Against COVID-19 Scammers
Federal authorities said they are instituting a dedicated COVID-19 fraud coordinator who will work with state officials to investigate and prosecute a growing panoply of COVID-19 scams, including charity and cyber fraud.
Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham announced the joint federal-state task force Wednesday.
“The Justice Department is prioritizing the investigation and prosecution of COVID-19 fraud schemes and individuals who are exploiting this public health crisis for personal gain,” Durham said in a statement. “Working together, we will disrupt these schemes and are prepared to prosecute those who seek to prey upon people’s fears or sympathy and illegally profit from this pandemic.”
The DOJ said those schemes include: price gouging, health care and government program fraud, consumer and small business scams, lending scams, charities fraud and cyber fraud.
Violators may be subject to civil fines and penalties and/or state or federal criminal prosecution, the office said.
Some of the most common scams involve federal COVID-19 stimulus checks. The DOJ said the federal government will “never charge fees or ask you to pay money to receive your check. The federal government will never call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account or credit card number.”
It also warned residents to check that the charities they are donating to are legitimate, and it urged small business owners to be wary of scammers offering dubious loans.
Federal officials said Connecticut residents may report COVID-19-related fraud by contacting the Office of the Attorney General via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 860-808-5318.
Bottle Redemption Set To Come Back At Supermarkets Across State
Since March 17, retailers across Connecticut have been allowed to suspend bottle collections at their stores over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, state environmental officials announced that the ban will be lifted on a limited basis beginning May 20, with full resumption of bottle redemption operations by June 3.
Details will be posted at individual retailers, but the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said in a statement that customers should expect “a daily limit on the number of containers, limited hours to facilitate cleaning and appropriate social distancing requirements and the wearing of masks.”
“Beginning May 20, Connecticut retailers that fail to accept empty beverage containers for redemption under the law known as the ‘bottle bill’ will once again be subject to enforcement actions by DEEP,” the agency said.
Connecticut Public Radio’s Frankie Graziano and Jeff Cohen contributed to this report.